Faculty of
Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology

Plastics are ubiquitous in the environment, and with an ever-increasing public concern over their environmental presence, are considered pollutants of emerging concern.

With the rapid increase in production and use of plastic materials, plastic debris continues to accumulate in the environment where they can fragment into smaller pieces called microplastics or nanoplastics. Microplastics have been reported in every compartment of the environment: in the marine and fresh water, in the terrestrial environment, in the air and in living organisms. However, how much we are exposed to, the potential risks to human health from this exposure and the interactions between microplastics with the natural environment are still unknown. At the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, a group of researchers led by Professor Kevin Thomas, UQ Plastics, is working on answering these questions.

Professor Thomas’ research team are developing new analytical techniques to quantify the mass of plastics in various environments with the goal of better understanding pathways and sources of exposure. The research group, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Exeter and Kings College London (UK) and Norwegian Institute for Water Research (Norway) are focused on filling a number of knowledge gaps.

For example, Elvis Okoffo is quantifying levels of selected plastics in biosolids (treated sewage sludge) across several locations in Australia to better understand the potential release to the terrestrial environment. Francisca Ribeiro is developing standardised techniques for estimating human plastic ingestion from seafood and the potential for plastic contamination from processing and packaging procedures. Stacey O’Brien is studying airborne plastic exposure in indoor and outdoor environments by applying strict criteria for sample collection and particle characterisation. The fate and impact of tyre wear particles on the environment, particularly Australian waterways, is also currently being investigated. Tania Toapanta is investigating whether intense weathering affects the reliability of the analytical techniques used by the group and Stephen Burrows is trying to understand how different biological and chemical factors interact with micro and nanoplastics and how this affects their impact, behaviour and fate in aquatic ecosystems.